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Inmates graduate from program aimed at reducing recidivism

Posted: July 19, 2008 12:20 a.m.
Updated: September 19, 2008 5:04 a.m.

Members of the musical group Contra Band prays together during the MERIT graduation ceremony, at Pitchess Detention Center on Friday. Nearly 100 Los Angeles County Jail inmates graduated from the program.

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They may have worn blue, but the inmate-backed band at Pitchess Detention Center did not have a case of the blues Friday morning, as ContraBand filled the air with songs of love and happiness to celebrate the beginning of a new chapter in their lives.

With the sun beaming down on their heads and a mild wind drying the sweat dripping from their eyebrows, nearly 100 inmates in blue jumpsuits congregated in front of several dignitaries at the Castaic jail to receive their diplomas and be honored by deputies for graduating from the MERIT program.

After receiving their diplomas, the inmate graduates enjoyed a brief reception, then filed back through the razor wire-topped gate through which they entered, back to their barracks.

Standing for “Men Evolving to Recovery Through In-custody Treatment,” the 12-week program is split into the Bridges to Recovery course that focuses on domestic violence issues, and a separate course specifically for veterans.

“I looked up ‘graduation’ in Webster’s dictionary, and it means ‘to change gradually,’” said MERIT alumnus Jaime Gonzales, who graduated from the program in 2003. “That’s what this program is all about — change. You can teach an old dog new tricks.”

Gonzales then teased the graduates by waving a $20 bill in front of his microphone, asking who would accept the money.

When each of the inmates sheepishly raised their hands, Gonzales tore the $20 bill in half, spat on it, wadded it up, dropped it on the ground and stepped on it.

He then asked which inmate still wanted the $20 bill. Many of the graduates still raised their hands.
“That is what inmates are like,” Gonzales exclaimed. “We were tore up, spat on, dropped to the floor and stepped on. But, like this $20 bill, we are still here.”

In agreement, the graduates applauded Gonzales’ words and prepared to leave behind a life of crime, drugs or abuse for a new, promising life.

“Gentlemen, you are modern-day giants,” graduate Michael Vaughn preached as the graduates yelled “c’mon now” at the end of his exclaimed points. “You have risen to your feet through knowledge.”

Fellow graduate Robert Garcia offered a different perspective for the program’s new students: “You may be on your way to meeting someone you never met before — you.”

With pleasantries exhausted and wise words spoken, the graduates were ready to receive their diplomas, to which the program’s professional development bureau chief had this to say to the graduates.

“Today is a big deal,” said Richard Weintraub. “Today is a huge achievement. You deserve to be happy.”

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